Retail, buying and merchandising
Picture of a fashion designer

Fashion design: area of work

You need to be more than a dedicated follower of fashion to make it as a fashion designer. Commercially minded graduates who can stay two steps ahead of consumer trends will thrive in this competitive area of retail – but be ready to do unpaid work experience or further study to get ahead.
Trips abroad to seek out new trends, attend fashion shows and visit fabric houses are one of the perks of being a fashion designer.

Designing clothes and accessories is a very popular and competitive field. Most people think haute couture when they think fashion design, but in reality the majority of fashion designers go to work for mass market design ‘houses’, producing recognisable high-street brands such as Topshop, Miss Selfridge, H&M, Marks & Spencer or George at Asda.

What do fashion designers do?

Most graduates work for two types of designers in the mass market: either in-house on a retailer’s own brand (for example, Per Una at Marks & Spencer), or for a design house that sells its collections to various different retailers.

In both cases, work for a fashion designer typically involves drawing sketches or using computer-aided design (CAD) to create designs for the brand or product for which they are responsible. Fashion designers may also source, select and buy fabrics or other materials to use in their designs. Usually a designer will work to a brief, creating their patterns or samples based on requirements specified by someone else: a more senior designer or a buyer, for example. These briefs can vary in how specific they are. The colour or type of fabric may be specified, for instance. For each design fashion designers have to consider the customer that the brand they’re designing for wants to attract.

For in-house designers, working closely with buyers is crucial to getting the best possible product at the best possible price. Buyers will often give designers a specific budget that they must stick to, or ask them to design a range of items that can be sold at a particular price. Together, buyers and designers will work to make sure the store has the latest trends and key items for that season. This can sometimes involve having to compromise if their ideas for a design don’t quite match up.

Once a product hits the shops, design house designers will liaise with sales teams to monitor the popularity of different styles. In-house designers will also monitor the popularity of their designs, but will usually do this by liaising with the merchandisers for their particular retailer. The success of the collection will have an impact on the design decisions that they make in the future.

What degree background and work experience do I need for a career in fashion design?

Some job descriptions may not specify that a particular degree, or indeed any degree, is necessary. However, fashion design is an incredibly competitive area; most other applicants are likely to have a relevant degree. As such, having an undergraduate or postgraduate degree in textiles, art, fashion design or similar is virtually essential.

Getting relevant work experience will help to maximise your chances of breaking into fashion design. It is a very hands-on job right from the start, which means the more experience you have and the more varied it is the better.

What are the key skills for a graduate job in fashion design?

  • Creativity is essential
  • Excellent technical knowledge and practical skills
  • Up-to-date knowledge of consumer trends in you chosen area
  • Commercial awareness and some numeracy skills to aid the understanding of production time and cost
  • Experience of using Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and CAD/CAM programs is an advantage
  • An awareness of WGSN and other fashion trend forecasting services is an advantage

Starting out as a graduate fashion designer

There are very few graduate schemes for fashion design, which means the majority of people enter this area through entry-level jobs. Your first role as a graduate starting out in fashion design will most likely be as a design room assistant or similar. This role will help you to gain experience and build your portfolio so that you can work your way to a more senior position, such as assistant or junior designer. There is no guarantee that you will stay with the same employer as you move up the ranks.

As your career progresses, the roles you are likely to move through starting from assistant designer include designer, senior designer and head of design. However, fashion designers may choose to be freelance rather than employed. Employed designers will typically work regular office hours, although longer hours may be required sometimes to meet client deadlines. Freelance designers mainly charge per design or per collection.

It’s worth noting that those graduate employers who do run formal schemes don’t always retain graduates as in-house designers, but may expect them to take up a role with one of their suppliers instead.

Why choose a career in fashion design?

For the right person, a career in fashion design could provide a lot of job satisfaction in that you could get to see your creations being worn in the street. Trips abroad to seek out new trends, attend fashion shows and visit fabric houses are one of the perks. You’ll also be first to hear of the sales at the high-end fashion houses – but you may have to wait a while to rub shoulders with Stella McCartney or Jean Paul Gaultier.